What Learning Designers Can Learn from Marissa Mayer About Design

I attended the Dreamforce conference recently in San Francisco and was blown away by the size and scope of the conference. Over 135,000 people registered for the the conference, and sessions were held over four days at the massive Moscone Center and in several hotels throughout the area. Dreamforce Conference 2013

Although the conference topic was not directly related to eLearning or training, the Keynote interview with Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff offer some important lessons about design that I think are relevant to what eLearning designers do every day. Specifically, there are three things learning designers can learn from the Mayer interview. First is the importance of developing people. Second is about observing users before any design happens. Third is the focus on simplicity.

Lesson #1: Importance of Developing People

One of the first topics covered in Mayer’s keynote interview was the importance of developing people. One way Mayer develops product managers is to include as many as possible on global trips to learn how people use products in difference countries. It is no secret that Mayer focuses on developing people. She had extensive learning programs for product managers at Google and a version of such a learning program was created as a Udemy online course that anyone can take. It should be music to the ears of learning designers everywhere that a CEO of a multi-billion dollar, global business places such a high importance on developing people.

Lesson #2: Observe and Learn Before You Design

A second lesson from Mayer’s keynote is the importance of sitting down with people and observing how they use a product so a product manager can understand how to design it. How many times have you designed an eLearning course for a product, a process, or a concept that you do not use or perform yourself? We all have. Our skill is designing learning and working with subject-matter-experts to collect, aggregate, and assemble content expertise into a format suitable for learning.

What if part of our design process was to perform the job task for which we are designing a training class? Or at least observe people doing the job. Before we ever started designing an eLearning course, we should observe (and perform) the job or product or process before typing anything. We will have a much better perspective on what we are designing.

Lesson #3: Simplicity of Design

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, said to Mayer, “You have a real commitment to simplicity.” Then he asked her where that comes from. Mayer did not know where it comes from so much as she knew that simplicity of design is “all about the user.” There are so many extraneous features in most products that they distract from what 98% of people actually use a product for. Her advice is to break a product down to the core essence of what it is intended to do. She gives a great example of a copy machine. The 98% use case is making a copy of a piece of paper. It should be the easiest thing in the world to put a piece of paper in the machine and press “the big green button” to make a copy. Most copy machines to this well. But sometimes all those "extra features" can complicate things so much that no one can use the machine for its intended purpose.

Designing eLearning is no different, as the idea of simplicity is grounded in the science of cognitive load. Too often, learning designers put too many “extraneous” features in our designs like irrelevant graphics, text filled screens, audio narration, downloadable files, links to outside resources, definitions of terms, etc.  When too many of these things are happening at the same time, people’s brains cannot handle it and do not learn effectively.

Just as Mayer tells product managers to remove extraneous features from products, learning designers should remove anything that does not directly help someone achieve a specific learning objective.

Simplicity and Learner Focus

If you design eLearning, I recommend watching this keynote interview with Marissa Mayer. It is inspiring and will help you think about how to improve the quality of your eLearning through simplicity and a focus on your learner.

Bill Cushard, authorblogger, and learning experience (LX) designer, is a human performance technologist (HPT) with extensive, in-the-trenches experience building learning organizations in start-up and hyper-growth organizations like E*TRADE, the Knowland Group, and Accenture. You can follow him on Twitter or on Google+.

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